SuperMemo frustrates me to hell!

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Sebastian S. wrote:

i tried supermemo but i'm extremely frustrated! Somewhere on your web page it is stated that a typical item is memorized in about one minute of learning time IN TOTAL and about ten repetitions. But whenever i try to get into it, it takes long, long, time to recall an item right for the FIRST TIME. I try to learn 20 new words per day, but getting those twenty new words into my head for the FIRST correct answer takes half an hour ALONE. Each day, the following happens: The program asks me a new item and i don't know the answer, then it asks me a bunch of other new items and when the first one reappears, i've alredy forgotten it again! So i'm ending up needing AGES to just clear this queue of twenty new words. Your help pages and everything seem to not know this problem, as far as i can see, so i'm mailing you.

Do i just not get the point? What happened to the "one minute in total"-Promise? Anyway, i'm drowning in frustration here and about to quit!

please help!


Dear Sebastian,

Do not quit! Your situation is not that unusual for beginners. Two things are almost certainly holding you back:

  1. mnemonic skills: if this is your first play with flashcards, you will need to get some practice; one of the first steps would be to slow down, and do 1 item well rather than 10 in a hurry. Your mnemonic skills will improve fast!
  2. formulation of items: nearly all beginners, formulate questions that are too hard to remember. Unless you learn Chinese, or a similar hard subject, you can always remedy hard formulation with some skills

Please send some items that are causing problems (e.g. those that got forgotten 5 or more times). Perhaps it will be easy to diagnose the formulation problem.

See this article which helped many improve their skills: 20 rules of formulating knowledge.

You will get to your target of 10 repetitions per lifetime!

Follow up

Thanks for your help! Unfortunately, i AM learning a pretty hard subject: Japanese. In this language, some words are written the same but can be read differently OR are read the same but are written differently. So "yomu", for example, can be boiled down no further than: 読む= to read, to count, to guess. Boiling it down further than that would mean to remove essential parts of it's meaning in my opinion. But even then that's only one of three "yomu's". If someone says "yomu", he could totally mean one of the other two. 目, on the other hand, can mean "me": eye; vision; look; an experience; viewpoint; texture; weave; ordinal number suffix; somewhat; -ish. But 目 can also be read "moku": Order; item; counter. Of course, i COULD remove, for example, "viewpoint" or "weave" out of it, but wouldn't that mean to remove essential parts of it's meaning? That would leave me with an easier to learn but "crippled" version of the word, and if someone means "weave" i had no idea what he's talking about :-( Same problem with 読む (yomu): If i would remove, for example, the "guess" meaning, i would end up not understanding somebody!

Of course, japanese is "a hard nut to crack" and not really representative. But a friend of mine has a similiar problem with this spanish word: "noise"= el rin~a; el folón; el jaleo. Same problem, boiling it down some more would remove essential parts of it's meaning, but remembering all three is super hard. Or are we just not getting the point?

Maybe we just don't do it right, just clicking through the cards. Talking about "practise" and "mnemonic skills": If the programm shows me a card and i don't remember it, i just say: "Ok, maybe next time" and move on. Or am i supposed to spend some time trying to learn that word when i had it wrong? I thought, the repetitions ARE the learning method? Am i totally missing the point here again? What learning effort do i have to invest in addition to clicking through the cards in hope of remembering? And wouldn'd that end up in more than the promised one minute of total learning time? Does this minute refer to ALL the time one has to invest in learning or just the repetitions? Even with material that's not as hard as japanese, let's say "average" material, one mere minute from seeing it the first time in your life to never forgetting it seems plain impossible. Does this refer to just the repetitions, or does this minute cover up EVERY learning effort one has to invest?

Sorry for asking all this questions, but i'm super curious and want to understand supermemo to learn super fast with it! Imagine how i felt when what i thought was the fastest learning method in the world ended up that frustrating :-( So i really want to understand what i did wrong and how i can improve!

again, thanks for your help! Sebastian


Nearly all your problems can be solved by changing item formulations. Some further clarifications below.

Speed of learning responsibilities

SuperMemo promise on the speed of learning carries one big caveat: items are well-formed and comply with the 20 rules. You will not achieve the expected 10 repetitions per lifetime if your items are too hard or ambiguous. In the extreme case, you might ask: What is the contents of the New York phone book?. You bet you will need more than 10 x 5 sec. to tackle such an "item". In other words: No. Repetition alone is not the method. You need to take care of the formulation and mnemonic. The figures advertised from the onset of SuperMemo World came from database made of word pairs (e.g. Polish word - English word). See "multiple meaning words" example below to see how to tackle some of the issues.

To sum it up: It is possible to invest a minute of life and remember an item for ever. However, the item needs to meet minimum information criteria. The time needed to find the item, or to formulate it, or type it in to SuperMemo, is not part of the said minute. For minimum information principle, see 20 rules.

words with multiple meanings

This type of item is notoriously hard:

 Question: word 
 Answer: meaning1, meaning2, meaning3

This is an example of enumeration (mentioned in "20 rules" above). Instead, you need to use 3 items:

 Question: word (in context1)
 Answer: meaning1
 Question: word (in context2)
 Answer: meaning2
 Question: word (in context3)
 Answer: meaning3

Paradoxically, by making sure your memory focuses on one thing per item, you save a lot of time by adding more items. This is how you should handle the three meanings of "yomu" in Japanese. The difficulty here does not come from Japanese itself, all languages use words with multiple meanings.

In this case, the problem is not with you, your memory, Japanese, or SuperMemo. The problem is with the formulation. Our brain has not been "designed" to memorize lists or multiple meanings. We always think of a binary connection word-meaning in a given context.

maybe next time?

When you get frustrated with hard items you say "Ok, maybe next time" and move on'?

It is not unusual. And it is also probably the number one reason (some) people do not like SuperMemo!

This is a classical case of conditioning. You see a bad item and ignore it or postpone it or just answer "fail" and take no action! This way the same item will come back again in a few days. This time you will like it even less, be less motivated to fix it, and possibly remember even less of its complex content. Even worse, if your item formulation skills do not improve as a result of not making an effort, you will accumulate more and more of such items. In the extreme case, you will arrive at a point of just clicking some buttons, learning nothing and hating SuperMemo! You condition yourself into a trap: giving up on SuperMemo with a bad taste in your mouth!

Instead, you need to remember the following rule: Never waste time in SuperMemo! Delete, dismiss, de-prioritize, or reformulate! Always take action. Even a small incremental step towards improving an item will leave you with a sense of mini-accomplishment.

You also need to read "20 rules" and learn a bit about mnemonics. If you keep "moving on", you are not learning Japanese, nor are you learning how to use SuperMemo efficiently. This can indeed be wasted time!

Over time, you will discover all 20 rules on your own. However, you need to keep trying! "Moving on" is not the formula.

Learning Japanese

When learning Asian languages, westerners need to build a solid mnemonic framework before ideograms start sticking to memory. What Asian kids grow to know from childhood, westerners find exotic, disjointed and just un-memorizable. To get a good start on mnemonics, google for your specific area of interest, e.g. mnemonic + kanji, etc. There are plenty of mnemonic lists to help get a start in all major areas of learning.